That’s before we get to Allen’s very public 1991 split from his long-term girlfriend and frequent leading lady Mia Farrow, following the revelation of his affair with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, beginning when Allen was 56 and Previn 21 (the pair later married, and remain a couple).
In the aftermath came the accusation that Allen had molested his seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan Farrow − who has stuck to her story as an adult, while Allen remains equally steadfast in his denial.
By the time we reach the Farrow years, Apropos of Nothing has become another book entirely.
While no charges have ever been laid, the matter has continued to overshadow Allen’s still active career, especially since the start of the MeToo era, in which his estranged biological son, the journalist Ronan Farrow, has played a major role.
As they say, you couldn’t make it up. Not that the distinction between truth and fiction in this context is exactly straightforward, however many commentators have felt equipped to weigh in on Allen’s guilt (or, less frequently, his innocence).
Controversial even before its publication, Allen’s new memoir doesn’t do much to straighten things out − though Allen’s urge to defend himself is plainly a driving force, the title being one of his more sarcastic jokes.
Speaking of jokes, anyone expecting Allen to set aside his comic mask may be disconcerted by the voice he adopts, which for the first 200 pages is exactly that of the wisecracking schlemiel we know from his movies.
On his parents: ‘‘I’m sure they loved each other in their own way, a way known perhaps only to a few head-hunting tribes in Borneo.’’ On the launch of his jazz career: ‘‘The rest is history − but so is the Holocaust.’’ On his lack of interest in space travel: ‘‘I am a big fan of gravity and hope it lasts.’’
Every sentence or two, the prose climbs a little hill of cliche or pretension and then descends into bathos, a trick Allen learnt from his literary idol S.J. Perelman, whose New Yorker humour pieces undoubtedly taught him more as an artist than, say, Ingmar Bergman ever did.
Covering Allen’s upbringing and his rise to success, the earlier parts of the book are funny, full of period flavour, and endearing in their very familiarity (those who know his movies will recognise a good deal, including the odd recycled one-liner).
Gradually, the tone changes, especially in the still jokey yet harrowing account of Allen’s 1960s marriage (his second) to Louise Lasser − whose mental instability apparently inspired several of his later scripts, though it’s worth bearing in mind we’re only getting one side of the story.
By the time we reach the Farrow years, Apropos of Nothing has become another book entirely. The stream of gags slows to a trickle as Allen concentrates on making the case for himself as a victim of circumstance, while inflicting as much damage on his adversaries as he can.
Whatever his public image might suggest, Allen has always insisted he is anything but an intellectual, nor even particularly introspective. He has, however, spent a significant portion of his life in therapy: in its unpredictable shifts of tone and subject matter, the book resembles a monologue delivered to an analyst, at times revealing more than Allen may have intended.
Ultimately it’s clear the gags are the man − enacting, over and over, Allen’s sense of himself as a mouthy lower-class hustler in doomed pursuit of an ideal of elegance that may never have been more than a mirage.
In his Brooklyn boyhood, as he tells us, this elegance was represented by the promised land of Manhattan, not so much the real place as the black-and-white playground for the wealthy pictured in Hollywood movies with Cary Grant or Fred Astaire.
His bitterest complaint against his uncultured parents is that they never once took him to ‘‘a show or a museum’’ − a phrase he precisely repeats, whether deliberately or not, in describing Farrow’s treatment of the young Soon-Yi.
All of this ties in neatly with Allen’s films, typically built on the contrast between harsh reality and seductive dream. Often his protagonists are caught between the two realms − like the Depression-era moviegoer played by Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo, or the nostalgic screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who travels back in time in Midnight in Paris.
Allen himself likewise appears to have a foot in each camp. ‘‘I have always despised reality and lusted after magic,’’ he writes, paraphrasing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. On the other hand: ‘‘Of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, I have managed to avoid most except for number 682 − no denial mechanism.’’
Between those two statements, it’s no wonder Allen’s analysts have had their work cut out.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.